Amid growing tensions in the relations of Russia and the West, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in an interview with TASS has commented on the possible deployment of the alliance's four batallions in Poland, NATO's stance on Russian military drills, activities in Crimea and the upcoming Russia-NATO council.
- So, first of all, it's a bit difficult to ask something new after yesterday's press conference, everything is said already, but I'll do my best. First of all, about the four battalions, so at Warsaw will be taken a final decision, does that mean that by deploying these four battalions NATO is considering that Russia could really launch an invasion into Baltic States or Poland? And if not, what's the meaning of this step?
- The meaning of this is to make sure that we have credible deterrence in a new security environment. We don’t deploy these battalions because we want to provoke a conflict, but because we want to prevent a conflict and to avoid any misunderstandings. What we do is defensive, it is proportionate and it's fully in line with our international obligations. And NATO is based on the core idea that we will defend and protect each other, NATO is a defensive alliance, and our deployment or our four battalions do not have any offensive capabilities, but they are there to send the signal that we stand united in NATO.
- Sure. What those four battalions will do when there is no invasion, so nothing to report? What will be their day-to-day tasks?
- They will be there to send a signal that there is a multinational presence in the three Baltic countries and Poland. They will send a signal because there will be forces from different countries in those battalions. The details are not yet decided, but I expect them to do training and normal military activities as military units normally do, and they will also of course be linked up to national forces, so meaning that they can work together with national forces in the three Baltic countries and Poland.
- Absolutely. And the chain of command, those battalions they will be subordinated to who?
- They will be under NATO command. All the details are not yet decided.
- It will be decided in Warsaw or even later?
- The main elements will be in place by Warsaw, meaning which countries are going to be the lead nations, which countries that will support the lead nations with providing forces. We will have four, we call them framework nations or lead nations, and then other countries will support them. So by Warsaw I expect to have the four lead nations. We'll be able to announce countries that will provide support, and also where they're going to deploy the different lead nations, and when.
Then there will be still many details that have to be sorted out and decided after Warsaw, and for instance some of the details related to the command lines will also have to be decided. I'm not able to tell you exactly when all the details are going to be decided.
- I understand, yes, absolutely. But in general, as we understand now, those battalions will be under command of SACEUR? Of NATO, of SACEUR?
- Yeah, part of NATO command.
- That's clear. Those battalions are conceived to be able to counter the hybrid threats, so if we talk about rules of engagement could they be used to suppress riots, to suppress some anti-governmental protests in case the local authority will claim that those are inspired by Russia for example?
- This is a law enforcement task and this is the responsibility of police, law enforcement authorities in each of the individual countries, so they are there to protect against threats and aggression from outside. But what we have seen is of course that for instance in Crimea we saw hybrid warfare where we had this blurred line between war and peace, where we had covert operations and also little green men, people or soldiers without insignia, and of course then it's important to have the ability to support the Baltic countries to be able to cope with that kind of situation.
But I think again it's important to understand that the main reason why we increase our presence in the eastern part of the alliance is to prevent any kind of conflict, including a hybrid conflict, because our experience is that as long as NATO is predictable, transparent, defensive, but also strong, then we prevent conflict, and therefore the aim is to not come in a situation where we are forced to use these forces, the aim is to avoid coming to that situation.
- Absolutely. Perfect. So, talking about Crimea, NATO has made absolutely clear its position about how NATO phrase it the annexation of Crimea, so my question is we have a situation on Cyprus where the NATO member Turkey is occupying part of the island, so is there any, I don’t know, advice, any experience that NATO can share with Russia and Ukraine, how to solve the Crimean issue based on the experience of Cyprus for example?
- What we strongly support in Cyprus is the UN-led political process to find a solution, and there has been some progress, and we have also seen some real will from both sides to make compromises, and I welcome that. It's too early to tell whether they succeed but the important lesson learned is that it is important to support those UN-led efforts and the UN mediator Espen Barth Eide is actually a close friend of mine, he was foreign minister in my government, he was a previous Norwegian foreign minister, and so the lesson, an important thing in Cyprus is to strongly support the negotiations, the UN-led process to try to find a solution to the conflict.
- Okay, so we have discussed, yesterday I've asked a question about snap exercises in Russia, you explained perfectly clear how NATO perceived this and why this is breach in the regime of transparency in Europe, so what are NATO suggestions in case of snap exercises? What should be done so that NATO have full information and the transparency is there? Who should call who, what information should be shared?
- These are issues which are now addressed as part of the process aiming at modernizing the Vienna Document. And the snap exercises, the high number of snap exercises is a way to use a loophole in the existing agreement because it was never meant that snap exercises should be the new normal. But for Russia, snap exercises is now something that takes place on a regular basis, big exercises with tens of thousands of troops, and therefore the snap exercises are undermining the transparency and the predictability which is the aim of the agreements, the Vienna Document, which has been there for many years.
And then of course there are different options. One possibility which I think we could look into is to make sure that if there are snap exercises then there are also snap inspections and observers, but it has to be real, it has to be efficient, it has to work. And also I think it's important to understand that the snap exercises have also caused concern because a snap exercise was used as a disguise for Russia's military intervention into Crimea.
So the reason why I believe in transparency, predictability, risk reduction, is that that is a way to avoid that increased military activity creates situations, incidents, accidents that can spiral out of control, and therefore this is important.
- Yes. Is NATO considering a threat the decision of Russia to deploy three new brigades, divisions… Divisions, yes, not brigades, three new divisions, two in the east, one in the south?
- We don’t see any imminent threat against any NATO ally, and we don’t want confrontation, we are striving for a more cooperative relationship with Russia and we believe that at least we should be able to develop mechanisms, transparency, risk reduction, to prevent incidents, accidents, as I've just said.
But at the same time we have to respond when we see a more assertive Russia, a Russia which has tripled its defence spending since 2000, which has invested heavily in modern military capabilities, which is conducting this large number of snap exercises, and which has been willing to use military force against neighbours, illegally annexing..., destabilising Eastern Ukraine and annexing Crimea.
And the three divisions is yet another example of this substantial military build-up over a long period of time, and again this just explains why NATO in a measured and responsible way had to respond, and that's exactly what we do with the high readiness and the forward presence of our forces.
- Yes. Actually, the question of responding, of taking actions, I'm just pointing that it's kind of an egg and chicken situation when Russia is claiming that they did nothing against NATO, NATO starts to take actions to fortify its eastern flank, etc.
- But this is not an egg and chicken situation because there's no doubt that it was Russia's aggression against Ukraine, annexing Crimea and continuing to destabilize Eastern Ukraine, that triggered the NATO response. Before Russia started its aggressive actions against Ukraine, no one was seriously talking about any enhanced NATO presence in the eastern part of the alliance.
So it's absolutely wrong to say that this is the egg and the chicken because there is no doubt at all that it was Russia that started by being aggressive against Ukraine. Before that it was not on our table, it was not discussed in NATO to have any military presence. So for many, many years NATO didn’t have any major presence of this kind in the eastern part of our alliance.
- Except air police.
- Yeah, but I mean we had air policing and we had some exercises, but as I said we didn’t have any presence of this kind before Ukraine, and therefore there can be no doubt that that is the reason why are responding. And again, we speak about battalions; Russia has just announced divisions, so I think the magnitude is absolutely illustrating that what we do is defensive.
- Absolutely. Mr. Putin knows very well that there are two answers for this argumentation, that first of all Russia would never do anything in Ukraine if there were no coup d'état, which was actively supported by Western countries, and etc. But we will not go deep into the details, yes. No time.
- So, back to our…, yeah, NRC. No news since yesterday?
- No, not any real news, but we are in a dialogue with Russia and we are ready to have a meeting before the summit but it's also fine with us to have a meeting after the summit. The NATO-Russia Council is a platform for dialogue, and we believe in dialogue, especially when tensions are high as they are now. And we are in a normal consulting with Russia, and of course we have to agree with Russia on timing, on the modalities, on the agenda, so therefore it's fine for us also to have a meeting after the summit.
- In Moscow, many people say that the NRC Council has lost its credibility and its purpose after it was blocked in 2008 after the war in Georgia, second time it was basically blocked in 2014 after the start of the actions in Ukraine, so the question is what is now the purpose of the NATO-Russia Council if it failed to be a platform for communication in such critical times?
- I believe that the NATO-Russia Council is important because it is important that we keep chance for political dialogue open, also when we are facing a higher degree of tension and difficulties in our relationship, and that's exactly why I think it's important that we for instance in our last meeting addressed military activities transparency related to some of the issues we just discussed, and I welcome that Russia has agreed to have a meeting some weeks ago, and we are in dialogue now with Russia.
- And last question about the Russian military build-up and NATO spending. Still, the Russian military budget is ten times less, more than ten times actually less than NATO's military budget, so the question is you have said that's unproportioned, battalions from NATO side, divisions from Russian side, but if we look at the defence spending, NATO defence spending is ten times larger than Russia's. Is it still not enough for NATO to spend on defence? Why do you still need more money on defence?
- NATO defence spending has increased, no, sorry, decreased over many years. There was some increases related to our presence in Afghanistan, but the trend has been since the end of the Cold War a reduction. Russia has substantially increased its defence spending at least since the beginning of this, since 2000.
- And it's very hard to compare defence spending without also taking into account cost difference which is huge between most NATO countries and Russia. So we have cut the budgets for many, many years, and again because we have seen a more assertive Russia, a substantial military build-up, and a will to use military force, then we are responding. But again, we don’t want a new Cold War. Cold War is history and we want the Cold War remain so, to remain history, because we believe that it is both in NATO and Russia's interest to deescalate and to avoid confrontation.
I'm a former Norwegian politician and my experience with Norway is that we were able to develop a good working relationship with Russia over many years, we cooperated on energy, on border issues, on environment and fisheries, and also military issues, search and rescue up in the north, so my experience is that when Norway and Russia, and also before that the Soviet Union, cooperated, we achieved a lot. We opened the borders up in the north, we made it possible to cross the borders without visas, so this was to the benefit of Norway and to the benefit of Russia.
So I think the example of Norway is that cooperation can benefit both sides, and therefore we don’t want a new Cold War, we want the Cold War to stay history.
- To stay history, perfect. Ah, you invited Russian observers for the NATO exercises now in Europe, Anaconda for example?
- Yeah, there were Russians…
- They're present.
- They were not only invited but it was notified where…
Interviewed by Denis Dubrovin